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How a 9/11 hero worked to rebuild New York’s fire department

Sal Cassano spent more than four decades in the New York City Fire Department, serving as a crucial leader before, during and after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist...

Sal Cassano spent more than four decades in the New York City Fire Department, serving as a crucial leader before, during and after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that took the lives of more than 300 members of the department.

“On September 11, I was a commander overseeing the borough of Manhattan,” Cassano explained.

When Cassano initially heard that there had been an explosion at the World Trade Center, he assumed it was some kind of construction accident.

Then he received word that the blast was actually an airplane that had crashed into the North Tower.

“We knew right at that moment that it was going to be the most difficult day that we all faced no matter how much experience we had,” Cassano said.

As Cassano arrived at the scene, he heard another explosion and saw debris rain down from the sky. He had to duck for cover and soon realized that the South Tower had also been hit by a plane.

The sky was blue and the weather was gorgeous.

There was no way a pilot could have been disoriented on such a perfect day, Cassano thought to himself.

“We already knew this had been a terrorist attack and it wasn’t an accident,” Cassano said.

It wasn’t long before the South Tower collapsed, and Cassano and his team started focusing their attention on getting people out of the North Tower.

They moved their units and resources in that direction.

“I heard a loud roar, which I thought was another plane coming,” Cassano explained. “I looked up and it was the North Tower collapsing right in front of our eyes.”

Cassano tried to protect himself by ducking under a fire rig that was parked nearby, but he was injured by falling debris.

He was taken to a hospital and treated, and then went straight to the fire department’s headquarters to help coordinate the response, working to determine how many people were missing, where injured people were being taken and which command posts had been destroyed by the buildings collapsing.

“The day went into night, the night went into the next day, and the next day went into the night,” said Cassano. “When I got home it was two days later.”

Rebuilding the department

Cassano’s extraordinary courage and leadership on 9/11 was not overlooked by department leaders.

Immediately following the attacks, he was appointed to serve as chief of operations.

“I dedicated myself to ensuring that the department would be rebuilt and that we would be prepared for any incident,” said Cassano.

There was concern that recruiting and hiring new people would be nearly impossible after such a horrific event, as prospective firefighters learned that they could be first responders to a terrorist attack.

However, there was more interest than anyone could have predicted.

More than 60,000 people applied.

“It was overwhelming,” Cassano said. “Right then and there, we knew we were going to be okay as a department. We just had the responsibility to give them all the information, training, equipment and tools they needed to become the best firefighters they could become.”

The New York City Fire Department studied every detail of what happened on 9/11, including what went right, what went wrong and how the department could make improvements.

In terms of preparedness, the department is now “light years” ahead of where it was before the attacks, according to Cassano.

“We’re better because of the lessons we learned,” Cassano said. “We send people out all over the country to share our experiences, policies and procedures so those lessons have spread throughout the nation.”

In 2010, Cassano was appointed by the mayor to be fire commissioner, leading the nation’s largest fire department with more than 16,000 employees until he retired in 2014.

Looking back on 9/11

When the anniversary of 9/11 comes up, Cassano has mixed emotions.

“I saw my closest friends get killed so it brings back those memories, but it also brings back the memories of the bravery that I saw,” Cassano said.

Each year, Cassano spends the day going to the memorial at the World Trade Center site where he visits with fire officials and families of victims.

He remembers the tremendous sacrifices that were made and how all of their lives were changed forever.

“Sometimes it seems like it happened 100 years ago, and then some days it feels like it was yesterday,” Cassano said.

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